Tag Archives: Duke Ellington

Getting to Know the Great Jazz Legends

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Jazz is truly an American treasure, performed and enjoyed all over the world. To help establish appreciation among today’s jazz students, it is important for them to learn about some of the legendary musicians who made significant contributions to its development over time. Telling stories and humanizing the biggest players will fascinate and inspire your students to be more well-rounded players themselves. In celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month, we’re sharing some of our favorite historical facts and anecdotes on some of our favorite jazz legends of all time:

  • While recording “Heebie Jeebies,” Louis Armstrong kept his session running after the sheet music fell off the stand. He continued singing using nonsense syllables and making sounds similar to an instrument, resulting in the first known recording of scat singing.
  • Duke Ellington played baseball as a child, and his other talents included drawing and painting. He first demonstrated an entrepreneurial spirit with a sign-painting business, before becoming one of the greatest bandleaders of all time.
  • As a child growing up in Newport News, Virginia, Ella Fitzgerald’s first dream was to become a tap dancer, however she launched her singing career after winning an amateur talent contest at the Apollo Theater in Harlem at age 17.
  • During a jam session, drummer Jo Jones expressed his displeasure with Charlie Parker’s saxophone playing by tossing a pair of cymbals at Parker’s feet, indicating for him to leave the stage. Parker then became dedicated to music like never before, practicing 10 to 12 hours a day to sharpen his skills.
  • Thelonious Monk began piano lessons at 5 years old, and by the time he was 13, he was banned from a weekly amateur contest at the Apollo Theater because he had won so many times.
  • In 1954, Dave Brubeck became the first modern jazz musician to be featured on the cover of Time magazine.
  • John Coltrane was known to practice 12 to 14 hours each day to perfect his sound and technique. Even after reaching professional status, he could be found practicing between breaks at many of his gigs.
  • In addition to being a virtuoso bassist, bandleader, pianist, and prolific composer, Charles Mingus was also an astute business man, creating his own publishing company to protect his increasing catalog of original compositions.
  • Herbie Hancock not only demonstrated great ability on the piano, but in mathematics as well. He graduated Grinnell College in Iowa with degrees in electrical engineering and music composition.

Keeping students informed and inspired will help to continue the story of jazz for future generations. Jazz music, in comparison to Western art music, is still in its infancy. The jazz students of today are the jazz legends of tomorrow!

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The content for this article was pulled from Meet the Great Jazz Legends, which features 17 20-30 minute lessons on various jazz legends, each containing pictures, suggested listening, biographies, insights, and a puzzle, word scramble, or true/false game. The book also includes an enhanced CD with listening tracks for each lesson and a fully reproducible PDF. For a sample, click here.


Beyond the Music: Fun Facts About Your Favorite Composers

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By Jay Althouse

We sometimes forget that the great composers, whose music we know and love, were living, breathing people who led normal lives beyond their music. Well sometimes, as in the case of Beethoven, not so normal. After all, it’s difficult to be normal when you’re a genius. But just like the rest of us, composers had parents, went to school, grew up, sometimes married, and sometimes had children—Bach had more than 20! Their lives were filled sometimes with joy and sometimes with sorrow. Some, such as Giuseppe Verdi, achieved great financial success musically, while others, such as Charles Ives, rarely heard their music performed during their lifetimes.

For example, did you know that . . .

  • Hector Berlioz studied to become a doctor.
  • Igor Stravinsky, Edward Elgar, and George Frideric Handel studied law.
  • Charles Ives was a very successful insurance agent.
  • Antonio Vivaldi was a Catholic priest.
  • As a teenager, Duke Ellington received a scholarship to study art at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.
  • Much of Johann Sebastian Bach’s music was largely forgotten until it was revived, in the 1830s, by Felix Mendelssohn.
  • Giocomo Puccini’s hobbies were fast motorboats and faster cars.
  • Felix Mendelssohn was an excellent painter, artist, and author.
  • After the death of Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms fell in love, though never married.
  • After graduating from preparatory school, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky became a clerk in the Russian Ministry of Justice.
  • Richard Wagner authored several books, including an autobiography. He even formed his own fan clubs, which he called “Wagner Societies.” Now that’s an ego!
  • In addition to composing music and directing a band, John Philip Sousa wrote three novels, and autobiography, a music instruction book, and hundreds of magazine articles.

It’s important for students to understand that the great composers were, for the most part, normal people with extraordinary talents. As a teacher, you should take every opportunity to humanize the great composers your students study.

Alfred Music has two fully reproducible publications (One-Page Composer Bios and Accent on Composers) designed to teach your students about the lives of the great composers. Both books feature one-page biographies and are filled with musical and personal facts about the great composers your students should know. They’re excellent classroom resources for any music teacher!

althouse_jayAs a composer of choral music, Jay Althouse has over 600 works in print for choirs of all levels. He is a member of ASCAP and is a recipient of the ASCAP Special Award for his compositions in the area of standard music. Jay has also co-written several songbooks, musicals, and cantatas with his wife, Sally K. Albrecht, and also compiled and arranged a number of highly regarded vocal solo collections.